publisher's note
July 27, 2007



Does payback and ambition fuel criticism of Funkhouser?
by Bruce Rodgers

One thing that can be said about the Funkhouser administration is that it’s made local politics interesting again. Eight years of Kay Barnes’ prim and proper, what’s good for developers is good for Kansas City mode of governance had a lot of ordinary people in a snooze mode. Funkhouser’s candidacy and mayoral win has changed that…along with irritating some folks fearful of losing a lucrative hold on the status quo and others convincing themselves that Funkhouser is a boob not likely to last more than one term.

Realistically, Funkhouser is on OJT — an “on-the-job” training endeavor that has yet to bring him a leadership standing before the city council. People close to him don’t deny he’s wobbly in leading the council and many are nervous about his mayoral approach — particularly in his handling of the Francis Semler appointment to the Park Board — but the loyalty he gained with his nuts and bolts and we need a new economic development approach remains.

Helping Funkhouser move away from his mayor-in-training position is the openness he and his staff show before the public. Funkhouser does mingle with the citizenry and his staff returns phone calls. Overall, such a level of communication keeps Funkhouser popular and engages people — something as mayor he wants.

Of course, being engaged with the mayor also means being critical of him. Two of Mayor Funkhouser’s most recent and consistent critics have been 5th District Councilman Terry Riley and 6th District Councilman John Sharp. Riley is chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee of which Sharp is also a member.

Both councilmen have taken aim at Funkhouser for his want to change how the city doles out tax incentives for development, and neither particularly likes the concept of the Economic Development Task Force put together by the mayor’s office. One member of the task force said that “Sharp and Riley are on the same page” when it comes to opposing any changes to how the city uses economic development incentives.

That same task force member also said that Funkhouser has remain distant from the task force and could disagree and refuse to accept the final recommendations the task force comes up with. “He has not been influencing us,” said the task force member.

“We kind of operate as a think tank, getting everybody’s thoughts (on economic development,” continued the task force member. “We brainstorm, try and get a better picture and seek out perceptions on how economic development also influences issues like housing, jobs, taxes and social services.”

(Final policy recommendations from the task force are due Aug. 31. For a list of public hearings, go to

Both Sharp and Riley are on the task force along with four other council members. Outside of the city council members, just looking at the other individuals and the companies and organizations they represent one would be hard pressed to call this a radical group ready to undo years of city-pampered taxpayer supported development policy.

Still Riley and Sharp have been out front in expressing fears about development plans stalling and the city being frozen in its tracks when it comes to new development. But other things could motivate such a sky-is-falling scenario.

The mayor’s office, along with other local political observers, believes Riley has mayoral ambitions. They point to Riley’s 5th District seat, from which former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, now congressman, launched his political career as one that attracts political donations and media attention. (An email sent to Riley’s council office asking about possible mayoral ambitions was not answered.)

Riley also would be a good candidate to tap into the simmering anger within the Latino community over Funkhouser’s appointment of Semler.

“The anger is still high, and as long as she is there (on the Park Board), it’s going to be there,” said one Westside leader.

That same leader blamed the appointment for the city’s inability to attract the national conventions of the National Council of La Raza and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Riley — and Sharp — in questioning changes to the current way the city handles economic development would also likely attract the deep-pocketed developers and their attorneys to help fund future political ambitions.

Sharp, who unlike Riley, does not chair a council committee, likely hasn’t forgotten his dealings with Funkhouser as city auditor.

Sharp served as executive director of MAST (Metropolitan Ambulance Service Trust) for 12 years. During his tenure, MAST suffered financial shortfalls and criticism from the public and the health care community over ambulance response times.

In July 2003 then City Auditor Funkhouser released a Performance Audit what was critical of the management and the MAST board. In it, Funkhouser’s office made recommendations directed at then Executive Director Sharp. The audit was instrumental in changing the MAST organization in terms of its funding and oversight. Sharp resigned in October 2003.

When asked if Funkhouser’s MAST audit has a bearing on the councilman’s view of the mayor and his seeking of economic development policy changes, one task force member said, “There’s probably some truth to that.”

(An email sent to Sharp’s council office asking if his experience as MAST executive director while Funkhouser was city auditor had a bearing on how Sharp views changes in development policy was not answered.)

Barring that the Economic Development Task Force recommends no changes to current city development policy expect Riley and Sharp to continue to criticize Funkhouser.

Meanwhile, Funkhouser’s OJT goes on. But as one person close to the mayor said, “He’s getting there.”

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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